China’s President Xi Jinping (left) with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on September 18 (Photo: pmindia.gov.in)
For whatever it is worth, it is my considered opinion that India-China relationship has to be one of necessity and utility. It is time to drain it of any overt emotional content. Casting relations between two ancient, deeply entrenched civilizations in familial context does not and cannot work. The time is opportune under President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to design bilateral relations around what is necessary and utilitarian rather than something that has strong civilizational aesthetics attached to it.
It is from this context that I see the two great civilizations being able to work together without violating each other’s personal space. The Chinese must bear in mind that the world outside its flexible borders is not barbarian. The Indians must bear in mind that the world outside its borders is not one big family. The philosophy of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (The earth is indeed family) is glorious and lofty but impractical because territoriality is the supreme currency in the real world.
As I watched President Xi and Prime Minister Modi read out of their statements in Mandarin and Hindi respectively, I got lost in the unfamiliar and familiar rhythms of the two great languages. As an admirer of languages generally, it was striking to see the three big languages—Hindi, Mandarin and English—overlapping into each other during the ceremonial exchange of a series of agreements at the Hyderabad House in New Delhi. I would have loved to hear Hindi without understanding it because understanding it takes away from its intrinsic musicality. In that sense, I found President Xi’s Mandarin rather compelling. Living in America, one often feels linguistically straightjacketed because the official political America is averse to diversity of languages.
Speaking of diversity of languages, the Dalai Lama, in an obvious reference to China’s policy of Sinization in Tibet, made a point about it. "I think the Chinese president should learn some of India's experience. Look, east India, south India, west India, north India, different language, different script. But no danger of separation. Isn't it? Democratic rule, rule of law and free media..." he said. Since I am on the subject, it has been my longstanding view that Beijing must directly engage the Dalai Lama over Tibet even if in its view he is of no consequence. This visit would have been a great opportunity to set the ball rolling in that direction. Beijing generally and President Xi particularly have nothing to lose by holding direct talks with the Dalai Lama. It is not as if the mere act of talking to him would instantaneously lead to Tibet’s independence or even autonomy. The question of Tibet may have been one of geographical territory once but with the Dalai Lama having repeatedly called for a meaningful autonomy within China in recent years rather than complete independence, it is predominantly about the Tibetans’ ability to preserve their ancient culture and language. Language is a defining piece of any culture.
Overall, it is heartening to see that China and India are constantly working on their relationship even if the progress is rather slow and unpredictable as the incursion by the Chinese troops into the Indian territory in Jammu and Kashmir illustrates. The timing of the incursion is curious coming as it does when President Xi, who is chairman of the Central Military Commission which directs the armed forces of the country, is in India. It is not my case that a 1000 or so Chinese troops that reportedly intruded into Ladakh’s Chumar area did so under direct order from the president. But the president has to have been acutely aware of the adverse optics of the action.